In the first two chapters of TANAQUIL, the heroine, who has heretofore thought of herself as a tomboy uninterested in boys, falls in love with a young man whose only interest seems to be sex and motors. He’s quickly killed killed in car accident, a reason to leave town and move to New York, where she picks up handsome men and feels no guilt about it; on a double date, she gets treated like a prostitute by the man her friend had fixed her up with, moves away, takes acting classes, stars on Broadway and turns down a Hollywood contract because she’s fallen for a photographer’s assistant – Frankie Le Messina, nicknamed the Lemon Squeezer — who’s rescued her from a fire in a bar that is unconsciously but all too clearly coded as gay — the bar that is, not the boy, though he’s quite happy to move up and down the Kinsey scale as it suits. Phew!
Frankie’s gorgeous; his preference is for women but he’ll take pleasure when and as he can; lumberjacks, sailors… In Boston a friend tells him someone with his looks can make his fortune in New York and he decides to give it a try, though it doesn’t quite work out. He does luck in with a job as an assistant to Page, a famous photographer, and that is the point where he meets Tanaquil. He and Tanaquil fall madly in love, get married; they have two children; he gets drafted into WWII but the separation only strengthens their feelings for each other; he never achieves the critical recognition the book says he deserves. It’s probably symbolic that he specialises in tattoos, and he never gets a clear picture of the anchor tattooed at the point of a penis that he first took in Boston until the end of the novel. The anchor in the penis, always in his mind; a barrier, a destination, never quite in focus. As a novel, it’s all a bit flat. But the reason I read it is because it’s meant to be a roman-à-clef on George Platt Lynes and his circle and there the book succeeds in offering a much better picture of Pre-Stonewall life than YOUNG MAN FROM THE PROVINCES.
George Platt Lynes is pictured as Page: kind, generous, extremely social, assertive but not pushy, very elegant, very bad with money, and always out to have fun. It’s a fond portrait. We get to see many of the others in the Platt Lynes circle, Pavel Tchelitchew is figured as Stëpa, a once fashionable figurative painter, for example. The surprise is to see Joseph Cornell, here figured as William Dickinson, an artist who lives with his disabled brother and his controlling mother in the suburbs. He makes collage boxes he doesn’t really want to sell that go for so much money the sale of the one he gifted them dig Frankie and Tanaquil out of a financial hole and enable them to buy a building in Manhattan. Cornell is also fondly depicted though his romantic attachments to too-young girls are differently interpreted by Tanaquil and Frankie and creates friction between them.
A not very good novel that is nonetheless a fascinating document, not only of a particular way of life and fascinating people, but of a particular place constantly undergoing change. So, for example, I loved reading not only about the homosexual hookups but also, say, what the neighbourhood that made up the site currently occupied by Radio City Music Hall was like and what was lost by it being torn down.